Book Review: Group Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State

Conflict and Political Mobilization in Bahrain and the Arab Gulf: Rethinking the Rentier State Justin Gengler (Indiana University Press, 2015)


review by Bradley Williams

The 2011 Bahraini Uprising seemed to confirm that Bahrain does not conform to the orthodox theory of rentier oil states, referred often to Rentier State Theory. As Gengler (p. 147) asks “What is it about Bahrain qua rentier society that renders its rulers particularly incapable of buying popular political quiet?” The theory of the rentier state, or allocative oil state, predicts that Gulf States garner allegiance from citizens by redistributing the wealth that they accrue from oil revenues. Redistribution of wealth is supposed to alleviate all forms of opposition and protest. This perspective has remained dominant in international relations for roughly the last thirty years. Rentier State Theory was first explained in 1970, in a chapter by Hossein Mahdavy (1970) titled The Pattern and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran. Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani (1987) produced another influential analysis of Rentier State Theory in The Rentier State (Nation, State, and Integration in the Arab World, Vol 2).

The Royal al-Khalifa Monarchy in Bahrain controls virtually all areas of state and military governance. While Shia Muslims constitute the majority of civil society in Bahrain, they are barred from employment in the police and military and other areas of state governance that are deemed security sensitive. The protests referred to as the Bahrain Uprising have clearly shown that the ideal model of the rentier state and the assumptions that it makes about individual level behavior do not adequately explain the persistence of political opposition to rulers in Bahrain. Via a critique of Rentier State Theory, Justin Gengler shows that the relationship between civil society and the state does not conform to the rentier model at all. Gengler bases his findings on data from his mass survey, collected in early 2009. The survey is representative of the whole country and includes questions concerning political orientation, religion, and other information about ordinary Bahraini citizens. The survey data indicate that the government of Bahrain intentionally exacerbates tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This strategy undermines opposition without compensating either Sunni or Shia Muslims with money in accordance with the rentier state model.

As I briefly noted above, Gengler developed and administered a first-of-its-kind survey instrument. As the author states, the survey is based off of the “Arab Barometer questionnaire” with admittedly minor adjustments to fit the Bahrain context. Chapter Four examines the process of developing and administering the survey and the efforts he and his team underwent to gather data. The whole affair was completed in a short amount of time given that they still gathered 437 completed surveys of their goal of 500. The survey includes at least one respondent from every Bahraini village. I found this chapter to be one of the more interesting parts of the book. The researchers even utilized one challenge in a constructive way. They were able to account for the interaction affects between interviewers and interviewees from different devotional communities.

The findings of the survey seem to completely undermine our general understanding of rentier, allocative Gulf States. The study finds that first, private and public goods are not allocated in a politically neutral, or agnostic, fashion across all populations. Second, the study finds that there are many individual level factors that actually account for political opposition beyond merely economic incentives, or government incentives of any kind. The government and Royal Family in Bahrain have fostered a populace divided by distrust and fear between Sunnis and Shia Muslims. Sunnis surveyed indicated their belief that the state is the sole defense against the perceived threat of an Iranian-inspired Shia insurgency. Because of this fear, rulers in Bahrain are able to keep monetary allocation to Sunnis low while still maintaining strong support from most Sunnis. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, oppose a wide range of government policies based on a wide range of grievances concerning systemic inequalities and not caused by the amount of rent allocation. Because the Shia opposition cannot be dissuaded by a higher rent allocation, the state subdues political opposition with police and military force.

Justin Gengler has written an excellent and succinct examination of Bahrain that explains the recent political opposition and the government’s failure to sustain social order. The only real criticism is that the book is not a bit longer in parts. There are only 159 pages of text. The main text is followed by a seven page index consisting of the tables of data and a twenty-two page Notes section, which seems large in proportion to the main text. Although the book is short, the author adequately presents enough information to make an interesting and convincing argument. Many events, including the Bahraini Uprising and subsequent government repression, have been previously reported in the media. However, this book does compile these events in one place along with a superb, empirically verifiable analysis. Every part of the argument seems necessary.

Thinking of future research, Gengler states that research will need to focus on the consequences of divisive engineering by Gulf state rulers incite inter-sect conflict. Furthermore, one consequence of royal meddling is the rise of Salafist and Sunni militant groups, such as ISIS (Daesh). Gengler insists that research should seek to understand this link between the actions of rulers like the al-Khalifa in Bahrain and the persistence and rise of specifically Salafist and Sunni militant movements.

In conclusion, this book is a singularly important book that advances the fields of political economy and international relations. This book offers a unique and one of a kind insight into the country of Bahrain. Additionally, the author shows that his explanation of inter-religious conflict and government opposition within the country of Bahrain can be generalized to a broader range of Gulf oil countries. As Gengler puts it, the conditions within Bahrain are “merely the realization of a latent possibility that exists in other Arab Gulf regimes according to their peculiar vulnerability to such conditions” (p.7). This book is intended for an academic audience. It is particularly appropriate book for Gulf state specialists within political economy and international relations. However, anyone with an interest in the future of Bahrain would find this book accessible. This book is definitely unique and invaluable to anyone wanting a fuller understanding of the economic, political, and religious tensions within Bahrain that media outlets and published reports have scarcely revealed.


Bradley W. Williams is a doctoral researcher at George Mason University. He studies transnational governance, social movements, peace and organizational processes.

Twitter: @B_W_Williams

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